When we see an easy consensus under Trenton’s golden dome it has been my lived experience that more scrutiny is usually required.
Upon closer inspection, such a ‘call to action’ may reflect the desire to ‘ride the wave’ of change rather than actually doing something that might be radical but necessary. The open-ended need for campaign cash to ensure incumbency acts as a throttle for just how fast real reform is permitted to proceed.
And, so it is with the call by Governor Phil Murphy, Senate Majority Leader Stephen Sweeney and Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin to change the title of County Freeholder to County Commissioner. It was floated amidst the Black Lives Matter moment and a national pandemic that is killing people of color at a shockingly disproportionate rate.
This bit of window dressing will be a windfall for sign painters, graphic designers and auto detailers in all 21 counties but won’t address the accelerating wealth inequality we are experiencing amidst a further notice public health crisis without precedent.
There’s no doubt that by being the state that hung on to the Freeholder term the longest, we betrayed just how entrenched white male property owner supremacy has always been in our politics.
But the Freeholder nomenclature is the least of it. It stuck for so long because protecting wealth and its privilege were the core function of our state for so long.
New Jersey was at best ambivalent about slavery, voting along with Mississippi, Kentucky, and Delaware to initially reject the 13th amendment abolishing the institution.
We only signed off after Lincoln was dead and the Civil War was over in 1866. (Delaware waited until 1901.)
While New Jersey’s great white men of the 19th century were reluctant to hurt slave owners bottom line, they also wanted to make sure creditors could enforce their terms with the full force of the law including depriving debtors of their liberty, no matter how small the debt.
As historian Peter J. Coleman notes in his seminal account “Debtors and Creditors in America” the state saw itself as the essential enforcer for all creditors.
“By 1829 one New Jersey prison held five times as many debtors as criminals, and of the 117 prisoners in the Belvidere and Flemington prisons, about a quarter owed less than five dollars and more than half had been in custody for over thirty days,” Coleman writes.
“According to the Boston Prison Discipline Society, the incidence of imprisonment for debt was higher in New Jersey than in any other state, and prisoners were commonly held in ‘filthy and neglected conditions’ for the most trifling of debts.”
Into the 20th century, the State of New Jersey’s energetic promotion of corporations over the public interest prompted Lincoln Steffens, one of the original muckrakers, to call us “the traitor state”.
While other states attempted to push back on the corrupting influence of big money that defined the Gilded Age and made anti-labor abuses of the Robber Barons possible, it was New Jersey that granted them legal sanctuary to avoid accountability through the proliferation of trusts.
“EVERY loyal citizen of the United States owes New Jersey a grudge,” wrote Stephens in McClure Magazine in 1905. “The state is corrupt; so are certain other states….But this state doubly betrays us…. Jersey has been bought and sold both at home and abroad; the state is owned and governed today by a syndicate representing capitalists of Newark, Philadelphia, New York, London, and Amsterdam.”
He continued. “The offense which commands our special attention, however, and lifts this state into national distinction, is this: New Jersey is selling out the rest of us. New Jersey charters the trusts…And the point to fix in mind at present is that when, a few years ago, the American people were disposed to take up deliberately and solve intelligently the common great trust problem,… New Jersey, for one, sold to the corporations a general law which was a general license to grow, combine, and overwhelm as they would, not in Jersey alone, but anywhere in the United States.”
To this very day, our state carries forward racially discriminatory policies that disadvantage workers of color to the benefit of corporations, even as our elected leaders describes themselves as progressives.
Consider New Jersey’s minimum wage increase passed last year with great fanfare. It included a two-tier track where agricultural workers pay was permitted to lag behind most other non-farm employees who would see $15 in 2024. For farmworkers, that happy day does not come until 2027.
This discriminatory abuse of farmworkers can be traced back to President Franklin Roosevelt’s need to win southern votes for his New Deal by exempting farmworkers from the Fair Labor Standards Act which lifted so many other workers out poverty.
According to New Jersey’s Department of Labor website, twenty years into the 21st century, New Jersey’s farmworkers are still not entitled to overtime.
As the essential workforce, including farmworkers and their families, face the ongoing threat from COVID19, the practice of continuing such regulatory exemptions must end.